Earlier this year, an independent film called The Messenger very quietly racked up two Oscar nominations—one for Best Original Screenplay and one for Best Supporting Actor. That’s appropriate for a film as quietly powerful as The Messenger. Hopefully, as the film slowly rolls out across America, more people will get to see it.
The film was shot on a shoestring budget by director and co-writer Oren Moverman. It’s Moverman’s first time behind the camera, but his fifth screenplay. (Previous efforts include 1999’s drug recovery drama Jesus’ Son and 2007’s curious Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There.) Direct, honest, unfussy, it speaks of more great work to come.
Ben Foster (X-Men: The Last Stand, Pandorum) carries the lion’s share of the drama as Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, an Army Ranger sent home from Iraq after being wounded on the battlefield. Branded a hero and nursing an irritating eye injury, Montgomery is reassigned to the military’s casualty notification corps to fill out the remainder of his service. Their job: Knock on people’s doors and inform them that their relatives have just been killed in the line of duty. Training Montgomery in this difficult but crucial work is by-the-book vet Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson).
The narrative of The Messenger isn’t wide in its scope, rarely straying from its two main characters and their door-knock duties, but its message packs a wallop. For the majority of the so-called War on Terror, the American people have been denied access to its true cost—in terms of both money and lives. It was the policy of the Bush administrations (both jr. and sr. varieties) to never show coffins of soldiers and to never attend military funerals. And yet, photographic evidence or not, soldiers were sacrificing their lives every day.
The Messenger is not a political movie. It doesn’t attempt to lay any sort of blame for our current global conflict. It doesn’t argue rights and wrongs. It neither lambasts nor overly lionizes the military. Like last year’s other great war drama, The Hurt Locker, the film is simply an unvarnished examination of a very real and very difficult job.
Initially, we see Stone showing Montgomery the ropes. (Get in, deliver the message, use the word “killed” or “dead” so there’s no misunderstanding, don’t touch the next of kin, say you’re sorry, get out of there.) It’s one of the most awful, uncomfortable jobs you can imagine. Nobody’s happy to see you, no one wants to hear what you have to say, and every one of them reacts in his or her own unique and painful way.
Montgomery is still nursing his own battlefield wounds and can barely process what he’s being asked to do. Stone, on the other hand, is an old salt. He’s been doing this for years. It’s not that he’s hardened to the emotions he’s facing; it’s just that he’s seen every ugly confrontation imaginable. Just do your job as quickly and efficiently as possible is his motto. In this day and age of 24-hour news channels, Internet blogs and iReporters—it’s difficult to beat bad news home. People may never appreciate it, but a personal notice, delivered in a timely and professional manner, still beats hearing about the loss of a loved one on the evening news.
As Montgomery and Stone go about their business, we start to learn more about them and their backgrounds. Stone saw action in the first, comparatively cushy Gulf War and feels almost guilty now that he’s no longer a combat soldier. Montgomery is still silently shellshocked by his experiences in Iraq and feels like he’s serving penance for being labeled a “hero” and sent stateside. Whereas The Hurt Locker externalized its drama and tension with exploding bombs, The Messenger internalizes everything. It’s a sobering and nonetheless powerful look at the huge psychic toll war takes on a nation.
Foster contributes his best work to date thanks to a complicated, fully fleshed character. In addition to his difficult new assignment, Montgomery is dealing with a semi-ex-girlfriend (the nicely maturing Jena Malone from Donnie Darko) who managed to get engaged to another man while the sergeant was off at war. Eventually, our discombobulated hero finds himself intrigued by and attracted to a stalwart military widow (the always welcome Samantha Morton). It’s a complicated situation, but it’s one that’s dealt with very delicately—by both the characters and the filmmakers.
The standout work, though, comes courtesy of Harrelson—who earned that Academy Award nomination for his efforts (not to mention a Golden Globe nod and an Independent Spirit Award win). Everyone knows that Harrelson is a dope-smoking, tree-hugging vegan. He’s about as far from a gung-ho career military man as you can get. So the believable and sensitive portrait he presents here is a real testament to his acting skills. In the last year, Harrelson has given us Zombieland, 2012 and this little gem. That’s what you call range.
Though its subject of grief—both lingering and sudden—sounds like a downer, The Messenger is ultimately about basic human connection. Life does go on, even in times of war. It’s our connections to friends, co-workers, family members that allow us to overcome, to understand, to keep on keeping on. If anything, that’s the message this Messenger is trying to deliver.